One could argue that there are at least six types of highway hawks, but only three make my short list. Officially, I will admit, there are no birds that actually go by the name of “highway hawk,” but the Red-tailed Hawk, Kestrel, and Rough-legged Hawk are three species that could justifiably claim that name. By my definition a highway hawk is a daytime bird of prey (hawk) that can be seen from a moving vehicle while it is utilizing the habitat adjacent to a highway.
My terribly sophisticated definition eliminates hawks that might happen to fly over the highway while you are in the act of driving down it. I often see Northern Harriers, Cooper’s, and Sharp-shinned Hawks on any given winter drive, but these birds are usually going from hither to yon and not actively using the grassy area next to the road. The three mentioned highway hawks all make heavy use of our linear grasslands.
If this were a commercial, I would need to post a disclaimer across the bottom of the screen in which microscopic letters would state that extensive bird watching through the window of your vehicle can be hazardous if you are the driver of the vehicle. Driving while under the influence of hawks can pose a potential risk of inattention to the road ahead. If you experience a bout of vehicle hawking which lasts for over four hours then you will need to contact your physician.
Certainly you need to keep your eyes on the road at all times when your car or truck is in motion, but I don’t think there is any regulation against engaging in an occasional bout of roadside nature study. Our winter trio of hawks will provide you with many short simple, and safe, viewing opportunities.
There are two common and one uncommon highway hawks to consider. The uncommon one is the Rough-legged Hawk (see here). These visitors from the Arctic come down to enjoy our relatively mild winters. I saw one a few weeks ago while traveling west on M-50 out of Monroe. They have the habit of sitting at the very tippy top of a tree and this individual stood out like a sore hawk because they are quite large. I did a turn around to get a better look at the hunter but my out-of-the-ordinary behavior spooked the bird and he sailed off. Although Rough-legs come in many different color variations, the most common is as pictured with a dark stripe across the belly, light coloration and a mostly white rump.
By far the most common highway hawk is the Red-tailed Hawk. Adult birds certainly have the bright brick red tail (see here), but the brown-tailed juvenile birds are often seen as well (see this page). You might confuse this species with the Rough-legged, but there are two things to help you in this regard. First of all, the dark band on the Red-tail’s breast is further up the chest (almost like a Rough-leg with its pants pulled up into a wedgy position) and it is very speckled and diffuse. Some birds have a nearly solid white breast. Secondly, there are far far more Red-tails than Rough-legs. During a three hour trip down to central Ohio on Sunday, I saw at least a dozen Red-tails and exactly no Rough-legs.
I probably shouldn’t have mentioned the Rough-legged Hawk. They look very much like Red-tails at highway speeds. Sorry, I was just trying to be complete. You can wait a month or so and they’ll be gone, or you can drive with your eyes closed in order to avoid any potentially confusing sightings.
I strongly suggest that you keep your eyes open while driving because, aside from the obvious reason, there will be many chances to spot the third member of the highway hawk core – the American Kestrel (see here). These diminutive and colorful falcons are regular roadside features that prefer to perch on power lines. Aside from their small size and bright feather coat, they are easily identified by their nervous tail twitch.
The entire highway hawk corps sit high atop their selected hunting perches – be they fence posts, tree limbs, or power lines – and are easily seen. They are there looking for Meadow Voles. Voles thrive in the grassy environs of median strips and shoulders and they represent the perfect survival food for any patient overwintering raptor. In most cases, the birds are stationary and will not move during the brief time they are in your view, but other times they will be hovering or proceeding with food procurement at the exact moment of passing. It is in witnessing these active moments that the highway hawker is rewarded.
One requirement of any highway hawk is the ability to ignore the roar of traffic and to focus on the task at hand – mouse killing. Once the prey is spotted, they launch into a controlled descent and attempt to pounce onto the hapless victim. Large hawks kill their prey with a crushing grip while the Kestrel needs to deliver a coup-de-gras with a neat snip of the beak. If successful, the prey is taken back up to the perch and converted into a meal. Most of these attempts are un-successful so highway hawks need to have the tenacity to try and try again.
One fascinating hunting behavior, honed to an art by both the Red-tail and the Kestrel, is called kiting by bird geeks. By adjusting to the fine variations of a head wind or an up-draft, these birds can hover as if suspended in space by a kite string. When hovering, the bird is fixed over a certain spot and is constantly flaring its tail and wings to maintain position. The head remains stabilized – with gyroscopic grace – which allows the bird to scrutinize a potential mouse location for 10 seconds or more.
Hawking on the highway can be an enjoyable activity in which you and the hawk are remote observers of each other from two worlds, but on occasion the two worlds can collide. Several years ago, a dead Red-tailed Hawk was presented to me by one of my staff. He had found it along I-94. The unique thing about this bird was that he was still clutching a dead Meadow Vole in his talons. It seems that the hunter swooped down upon the mouse and was in turn killed as it was struck by a passing car. It was quite a task to pry the expired mouse loose from the hawk’s death grasp.
I believe it is possible that the circumstances of this singular death have entered into the legendary literature of Vole Land. In the language common to all roadside Meadow Voles, the tale relates how one brave vole called Voley (these mice are rather uncreative when it comes to names) lured the deadly hawk enemy (called AirDeath) into the path of a car (called Squishers). Voley was sacrificed in the effort, but his bravery resulted in the death of at least one dreaded highway hawk. “All Hail to Voley.”